A Partner By Any Other Name?

In 1980 I accepted employment as a summer law clerk with the Denver firm Head Moye Carver & Ray. It was a great summer. I lived in a house in Boulder with two close college buddies, saw the Doobies play Red Rocks on their Minute by Minute tour, made some great new friends, partied . . . a lot . . . and spent hot summer days in the Equitable Building‘s cool, historic law library where the volumes dated from its opening 88 years earlier.

I must have made some kind of impression on the firm’s partners because just before Christmas – right about the time I had decided I really didn’t want to spend another three years in school earning a Doctor of Laws – I received a letter from Craig Carver offering me a position as an associate upon graduation. I immediately and gratefully accepted and have been genuinely blessed to have never even wanted to look for another job again.

With a few notable exceptions – Uriah Heep (the Dickens’ character, not the English rock band) chief among them – the position of “law clerk” is an honorable title with an ancient history. Webster’s Dictionary traces the  first use of “law clerk” to 1761, but the word “clerk” is far older, having its modern root in the Latin clericus, meaning cleric or clergyman; clerc from Old French, meaning a priest, scholar, or student; and beginning in about 1200, cleric from Middle English, meaning a man of letters, i.e., anyone who could read or write.  Appointment to a judicial clerkship is an honor typically reserved to those who graduate near the top of their law school class. Appointment to a Supreme Court clerkship is considered one of the most prestigious accomplishments a lawyer of any age can attain.

With this venerable lineage it was surprising that, beginning in the 1980s, “law clerk” fell out of favor as a title to describe summer employment with a private law firm and was replaced with “summer associate.” I vividly recall the partner meeting where I first heard this neologism. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when Ed O’Keefe, our firm’s first and longest-serving Managing Partner, asked incredulously, “Why don’t we just call them summer partners?!’” Little did Ed or I know that the arrival of this euphemism heralded the coming of another with potential ethical issues: “income partner.”

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